Relf Sisters: Alabama Parents Deceived Into Having Young Daughters Sterilized (1973)

6 Posted by - November 5, 2018 - LATEST POSTS

“America has always viewed unregulated reproduction as dangerous. For three centuries, Black mothers have been thought to pass down to their offspring the traits that marked them as inferior to any white person. Along with this biological impairment, it is believed that Black mothers transfer a deviant lifestyle to their children that dooms each succeeding generation to a life of poverty, delinquency, and despair. A persistent objective of American social policy has been to monitor and restrain this corrupting tendency of Black motherhood.” (Roberts 1997:8)

In 1973, the case of two young black girls in Alabama brought awareness about the issue of sterilization abuse against black women living in the South. The , were 12 and 14-years-old. They were the youngest of six children born to a struggling family. The sisters had been declared mentally incompetent by an Alabama physician who subsequently went ahead and sterilized them using Federal money to pay for the girls procedures.

The children’s mother could not read and write and did not know what she was signing at the time. She was deceived into marking “x” (which was used for as a signature for blacks who could not read or write) on the consent forms. Nurses first approached Mrs. Relf to get permission to inject the girls with a contraceptive depo-provera (still in its experimental stages). The injection request was based on the governments interest in controlling the black population, race, and families living and likely to remain in poverty. But, months before the nurses approached Mrs. Relf the government had already decided to end funding for the hormonal injections because of the carcinogenic effect it was having in lab animals.

A nurse arrived to pick the girls up at the Relf’s home the day they supposedly were going to have their birth control injections. Minnie Lee and Mary Alice Reft were left alone in the hospital ward. A nurse went into the girl’s room and had Minnie Lee sign a false document, indicating that she was over age twenty-one (she was in fact fourteen years old). The next morning, both sisters were placed under an anesthetic and surgically sterilized. Matter of fact, on the same day the nurse picked up Minnie Lee and Mary Alice to take them to the clinic, she returned to the Relf home in attempt to pick up Katie, the oldest sister to also go to the hospital for sterilization. But, she locked herself in her room and refused to go.

When Mrs. Relf questioned the girls about the shots. Minnie Lee told her that they had surgery.  Mrs. Relf later found out that instead of her two girls having contraceptive shots, they were permanently sterilized with government funding. Something Mrs. Relf never wanted to happen to her girls. The Relfs later joined a class action lawsuit in federal court demanding a ban on the use of federal funds for sterilization. They also sued the surgeons and other associated groups for 1,000,000 dollars.

The court found that patients receiving Medicaid assistance at childbirth were the most frequent targets of coercive tactics by doctors and medical practitioners. Judge Gerhard Gesell found that an estimated 100,000-150,000 poor women had been sterilized annually under federally funded programs. Another study discovered that nearly half of the women sterilized were black – a rate that equals the number reached by the Nazi sterilization program of the 1930s.


Roberts, Dorothy. 1997. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. New York: Pantheon Books.


  • […] stages, which months earlier had been defunded as a contraceptive option because of the carcinogenic effect it had on lab animals. The girls’ mother, who was unable to read and write at the time, was lied to about what […]

  • All rights reserved without prejudice November 9, 2018 - 1:28 pm Reply

    It’s still going on.

  • linda tart November 9, 2018 - 7:14 pm Reply

    This was just as bad as the Tuskegee experiments. Did any of the women receive compensation for this? I am sure, many of them are still living.

  • Nancy Lunsford November 26, 2018 - 7:43 pm Reply

    It is appalling that black women’s fertility has always been the focus of so much racist control. Before emancipation they were doing everything to increase enslaved women’s fertility in order to increase their work force and wealth. Dr. Marion Sims set up hospitals and experimented on black women — without consent or anesthesia—to further the science of gynecology and the eradication of diseases that prevented healthy pregnancies. The sick reason was to ensure healthy breeders for a return on their owners’ investment. All women ultimately benefitted from these experiments but black women paid the exorbitant price.

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